Basic Premises 
Historicism is an approach to the study of anthropology and culture dating back to the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and encompassing two distinct forms of historicism, diffusionism and historical particularism. The approach is most often associated with Franz Boas and his many students but was actually developed much earlier by diffusionists who sought to offer alternative explanations of culture change to those argued for by social evolutionists. The evolutionists posited that humans share a set of characteristics and modes of thinking that transcend individual cultures (psychic unity of mankind) and therefore, the cultural development of individual societies will reflect this transcendent commonality through a similar series of developmental stages. This implied that the development of individual societies could be plotted with respect to that of other societies and their level of development ‘measured’. Low levels of development were attributed to relatively lower mental development than more developed societies. 

While socio-cultural evolution offered an explanation of what happened and where, it was unable to describe the particular influences on and processes of cultural change and development. To accomplish this end, an historical approach was needed for the study of culture change and development to explain not only what happened and where but also why and how. Diffusionism was the first approach devised to accomplish this type of historical approach to cultural investigation and was represented by two different schools of thought, the German school and the British school. 

The British school of diffusionism was led by G. E. Smith and included other figures such as W. J. Perry and, for awhile, W. H. R. Rivers. These individuals argued that all of culture and civilization was developed only once in ancient Egypt and diffused throughout the rest of the world through migration and colonization. Therefore, all cultures are tied together by this thread of common origin (inferring the psychic unity of mankind) and are therefore worldwide cultural development may be viewed as a reaction of native cultures of this diffusion of culture from Egypt and can be understood as such. This school of thought did not hold up long due to its inability to account for independent invention. 

The German school, led by Fritz Graebner, developed a more sophisticated historical approach to socio-cultural development. To account for the independent invention of culture elements, the theory of culture circles was utilized. This theory argued that culture traits developed in a few areas of the world and diffused in concentric circles, or culture circles. Therefore, worldwide socio-cultural development may be viewed as a function of the interaction of expanding culture circles with other native cultures and other culture circles. 
Historical particularism is an approach that was developed by Franz Boas as an alternative to the worldwide theories of socio-cultural development as espoused by both evolutionists and extreme diffusionists, which he believed were simply unprovable. Boas believed that to overcome this, one had to carry out detailed regional studies of individual cultures to discover the distribution of culture traits and to understand the individual processes of culture change at work. In short, Boas sought to reconstruct their histories. He stressed the meticulous collection and organization of ethnographic data on all aspects of many different human societies. Only after information on the particulars of many different cultures had been gathered could generalizations about cultural development be made with any expectation of accuracy. 
Boas’ theories were carried on and developed by scholars who were contemporaries with or studied under him at Columbia University. The most important of these include Alfred L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin and Edward Sapir. The contributions of these and others are detailed in the Leading Figures section below. 

Points of Reaction

Historicism developed out of dissatisfaction with theories of unilinear socio-cultural evolution. Proponents of these theories included Charles Darwin, E. B. Taylor, J. McLennan, and Sir John Lubbock. Later writers such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, Daniel Brinton and J. W. Powell took the concept of socio-cultural evolution and added racial overtones to the theories as a way of explaining different rates of social and cultural development. Their theories on the development of human kind were rooted in the still earlier works of the late 18th century, which claimed humanity arose to civilization through a series of lineal and gradual stages towards the alleged perfection of civilized society. These thinkers posited that each move up the evolutionary ladder was accompanied by an increase in mental ability and capacity. Therefore, primitive man operated on a base level of mental functioning, which was akin to instinct. Each level of development was preceded by an increase in mental capacity. The racial implications are this, if a society is found to be presently in a state of savagery or barbarism, it is because its members have not yet developed the mental functions needed to develop into a civilized society. A further problem with these unilinear models of cultural development is their assumption that western European society is the end of the sequence and highest attainable level of development. This posed a major problem for historicists and particularly for Boas who did not believe one could understand and interpret cultural change, and therefore reconstruct the history of a particular society, unless the investigator conducted observations based on the perspective of those they are studying. Therefore, Boas held it was necessary for the investigator to examine all available evidence for a society before an investigation begins. Boas’ belief in the importance of this was passed on to his many students and is evident in their works and methodologies

Diffusionist historicism developed into two related but different schools of thought, the British and German diffusionists. The British, led by G. Elliot Smith and W. H. R. Rivers, argued that components of civilization developed in a few areas of the world. When transportation reached a level of development that allowed large movements of people, civilization diffused from there. This school of thought was carried to the extreme by Smith who developed the theory that all aspects of civilization developed in ancient Egypt and diffused to all other parts of the world. Rivers was a little more conservative in his application of diffusionist beliefs but maintained that only a very few areas developed civilization and migrations from these centers was responsible for civilization being carried to remote parts of the world.

 The German diffusionists argued that civilization was developed in only a few isolated regions and that cultural independent invention was not a common event. However, people do move around and develop contacts with their neighbors and civilization was passed on through these contacts. Over time, these few isolated regions would have passed on their civilization to their neighbors and developed culture areas that diffused in concentric circles called culture circles. These culture circles would spread through contacts with neighboring culture areas. Over time, the civilization (set of culture traits) that formerly characterized only a few isolated regions would be diffused to all parts of the world and the originality of these isolated regions of independent invention would be lost to history.

 Boas and his contemporaries could not swallow the grand models and theories of cultural development advocated by evolutionists and British and German diffusionists. They believed that so many different stimuli acted on the development of a culture that this development could only be understood by first examining the particulars of a specific culture so that these sources of stimuli could be identified. Only then may theories of cultural development be constructed which are themselves based on a multitude of synchronic studies which are pieced together to form a pattern of development, over time, that is unique and shaped by a set of stimuli that is also unique. Not only are theories derived from this type of historically grounded investigation more accurate than the older models of evolutionism and diffusionist historicism, but they are also demonstrable. 

Leading Figures

G. Elliot Smith (1871-1937) – Smith is credited with founding and leading the British school of diffusionism. Through a comparative study of different peoples from around the world that have practiced mummification, Smith formulated a theory that all of the people he studied originally derived their mummification practice from Egypt. He concluded that civilization was created only once in Egypt and spread throughout the world, just as mummification had, through colonization and migration. Other proponents of the British school of diffusionism included W.J. Perry and, for a while, W. H. R. Rivers. Smith’s important works include The Migrations of Early Culture (1915) and The Ancient Egyptians and the Origin of Civilization (1923) (Lupton 1991:644-5).

R. Fritz Graebner (1877-1934) – Graebner is remembered for being the founder of the German School of diffusionism. Graebner borrowed the idea of culture area and the psychic unity of mankind as developed by Adolf Bastian and used it to develop his theory of Kulturekreistehere (culture circles), which was primarily concerned with the description of patterns of culture distribution (Winthrop 1991:222). His theory of culture circles posits that culture traits are invented once and combine with other culture traits to create culture patterns, both of which radiate outwards in concentric circles. By examining these various culture traits, one can create a world culture history (Winthrop 1991:61-62). Graebner insisted on a critical examination of sources and emphasized the relevance of historical and cultural connections to the development of sequences and data analysis. The most complete exposition of his views is contained in his major work, Die Methode der Ethnologie (Putzstuck 1991:247-8). 

 Franz Boas (1858-1942) - Boas was born in Midden, Westphalia (now part of Germany) and grew up in Germany. At the age of twenty he enrolled in college at Heidleberg where he studied physics and geography both there and in Bonn. He took his Ph.D. in 1881 from the University of Kiel. His dissertation was entitled Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water. After a brief teaching position at the University of Berlin, Boas moved to North America where he conducted fieldwork in 1886 among the Kwakiutl, which aroused within him an interest in primitive culture which was to be demonstrated through his first extensive work with the Eskimo of Baffin Island. He became an American citizen the following year and took a position as Instructor at Clark University. In 1896 he left Clark and became Instructor at Columbia University and Curator of Ethnology for the American Museum of Natural History, both in New York. In 1899 he became the first Professor of Anthropology at Colombia University, a position which allowed him to instruct a number of important anthropologists who collectively influenced anthropological thought in many ways. In 1910 he assisted in the founding of the International School of American Archaeology and Ethnology and was the resident director during the 1911-1912 season (Tax 1991:68, see also Bohannan 1973:81)

Boas is the name most often associated with the historicist approach to anthropology. He did not feel that the grand theories of socio-political evolution or diffusion were provable. To him, notions of there being one single human culture (emphasis on a singular culture) that all societies are evolving towards were flawed, especially those that had a western model of civilization as that towards which all societies are evolving. Even theories that speculated different aspects of human culture (again, emphasis on singular culture) as being invented in many different areas were viewed by Boas as incorrect. His belief was that many cultures (for the first time, plural) developed independently, each based on its own particular set of circumstances such as geography, climate, resources and particular cultural borrowing. Based on this belief, reconstructing the history of individual cultures requires an in depth investigation that compares groups of culture traits in specific geographical areas. Then the distribution of these culture traits must be plotted. Once the distribution of many sets of culture traits is plotted for a general geographic area, patterns of cultural borrowing may be determined. This allows the reconstruction of individual histories of specific cultures by informing the investigator which cultural elements are borrowed and which were developed individually (Bock 1996:299).

Perhaps the most important and lasting of Boas’ contributions to the field of anthropology is his influence on the generation of anthropologists that followed him and developed and improved on his own work. He was an important figure in encouraging women to enter and thrive in the field. The better known of his students include Kroeber, Mead, Benedict, Lowie, Radin, Wissler, Spier, Bunzel, Hallowell and Montagu (Barfield 1997:44).

Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) – In 1901, Kroeber received the first Ph.D. awarded by Columbia University in the field of Anthropology. At Columbia he studied under Boas where he developed his interest in ethnology and linguistics, the two sub-fields he would have the most impact on through a series of highly influential articles published throughout his career. Influenced heavily by Boas, Kroeber was concerned with reconstructing history through a descriptive analysis of concrete cultural phenomena which were grouped into complexes, configurations, patterns (or other such "descriptive wholes" which were themselves grouped into culture types whose comparative relationships could be analyzed to reveal their histories. Kroeber is further noted for his use and development of the idea of culture as a superorganic entity which must be analyzed by methods specific to this nature. In other words, one cannot examine and analyze a culture in the same mannar that one would analyze the individual; the two are entirely different phenomena and must be treated as such (Willey 1988:171-92).

While being influenced heavily by Boas, Kroeber disagreed with his mentor in several areas. Kroeber grew to feel that Boas placed too much emphasis on the gathering and organizing of data and was too concerned with causal processes (abstract phenomena) and their description. Kroeber was concerned with concrete phenomena and their development over time and felt that Boas did not emphasize these aspects enough in his own investigations (Buckley 1991:364-6).

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) – Benedict studied under Boas at Columbia and took her Ph.D. in 1923. She stayed in New York, the city of her birth, and worked at Columbia for the rest of her life. She began at the University as a part-time teacher in the 1920’s and in 1948, was appointed the first female full professor in the Political Science department at Columbia. Throughout her career she conducted extensive fieldwork, gathering data on such groups as the Serrano in California, the Zuni, Cochitii and Pima in the Southwest, the Mescalero Apache in Arizona and the Blackfoot and Blood of the Northwest Plains (Caffrey 1991:44).

Benedict is most noted for her development of the concepts of culture configurations and culture and personality, both developed in Patterns of Culture (1934). Benedict elaborated the concept of culture configuration as a way of characterizing individual cultures as an historical elaboration of their (the culture’s) personality or temperament (Voget 1996:575). Culture and Personality is used to express the concern between the relationships between culture and personality. Cultural configurations such as Apollonian and Dionysian are products of this relationship and are psychological types that can characterize both individuals and cultures (Seymour-Smith 1986:66).

Robert H. Lowie (1883-1957) – Lowie was born and raised in Vienna but attended college in the United States. He was granted a bachelor’s degree in 1901 from City College of New York and a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1908 where he studied under Boas. His primary interest was kinship and social institutions and he followed Boas’ example of insisting on the collection and analysis of as much data as possible by relying heavily on historical documents in his studies of the Plains Indians. His most lasting contribution to Anthropology was his 1920 publication of Primitive Society, which examined and critiqued Morgan’s theories about social evolution. The ideas Lowie developed from this critique held sway over the field until the 1940’s with the work of Murdock and Levi-Strauss in the late 1940’s (Matthey 1991:426-7).

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) – Sapir was born in Laurenberg, Germany but grew up in New York City and eventually entered Columbia University where he was attracted to Boas’ work in Indian linguistics. His study under Boas led to fieldwork among the Chinook, Takelma and Yana Indians of the Northwest. He took his Ph.D. in 1909 writing his dissertation on Takelma grammar. While joining Boas, Kroeber, Benedict and others in defining goals in theoretical terms, he disagreed with Boas and Kroeber’s reconciliation of the individual within society. He specifically disagreed with Kroeber’s ideas that culture was separate from the individual; his ideas on this subject more closely resemble those of Benedict (Golla 1991:603-5).

Paul Radin (1883-1959) – Radin was born in the city of Lodz (then part of Poland) but moved to the United States with his family when he was only one year old. Though interested in history he took his Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia in 1910, working under Boas while he was there. Radin proved to be a critic of Boas’ methods and concept of culture as well as a critic of two of his other friends, Sapir and Leslie Speir. Radin argued for a less quantitative, more historical approach to ethnology similar to Lowie’s work in the Plains. Radin’s criticism of Kroeber was over the latter’s superorganic concept of culture. Radin argued the opposite of Kroeber, claiming that it is the individual who introduces change, religion, technology, innovation, etc. into a culture and therefore it is the individual who shapes culture and not culture that shapes the individual as Kroeber argued (Sacharoff-Fast Wolf 1991:565). 

Clark Wissler (1870-1947) - Wissler was born in Indiana where he grew up and attended the University of Indiana earning his A.B and A.M. in psychology. He continued on to Columbia to work on his Ph.D. in psychology but, because the Anthropology and Psychology departments were merged, did limited work with Boas. Wissler, unlike Boas and most of his other students, was concerned with broad theoretical statements about culture and anthropology. He was noted for his use of culture areas in cross-cultural analysis and in building theories. Wissler helped to push anthropology far beyond evolutionism and away from Boas’ particularistic style of anthropology (Freed and Freed 1991:763-4).

Key Works
Benedict, Ruth. 1932. "Configurations of Culture in North America," American Anthropologist, n.s., vol. 34, pp. 1-27.
Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co.
Boas, Franz. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Free Press.
Graebner, Fritz. 1911. Die Methode der Ethnologie. Hiedleberg: C. Winter.
Kroeber, Alfred L. 1917. "The Superorganic," American Anthropologist, n.s., vol. 19, pp. 163-213.
Kroeber, Alfred L. 1934. "So-Called Social Science," Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 317-340.
Kroeber, Alfred L. 1944. Configurations of Culture Growth. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Kroeber, Alfred L. 1952. The Nature of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lowie, Robert H. 1920. Primitive Society. New York: Knopf.
Lowie, Robert H. 1934. History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Boni and Liveright.
Radin, Paul. 1932. The Method and Theory of Ethnology: An Essay in Criticism. New York:___.
Radin, Paul. 1952. The World of Primitive Man. New York:___.
Sapir, Edward. 1915. Time Perspectives In Aboriginal American Culture. Ottawa: Department of Mines. 
Sapir, Edward. 1915. "Do We Need A Superorganic?" American Anthropologist, n.s., vol. 19, pp. 441-447.
Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot. 1915. The Migrations of Early Culture. Manchester:___.
Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot. 1923. The Ancient Egyptians and the Origin of Civilization (2nd ed.). London:___.

Principal Concepts

Evolutionist School

Evolution / Social Evolution: Evolution is a theory most closely identified with Charles Darwin. This concept was applied to the problem of cultural development and used to develop stage theories of socio-cultural development. These theories tended to argue that all cultures develop at different speeds along a set of predetermined tracks. Therefore, the level of development can be determined according to the place a particular culture occupies on this scale. Once a society has been placed on the scale, its past development can be reconstructed and its future determined. Some extended this argument to include the idea that the reason some societies have developed more quickly than others is that the mental capacities of its members are more developed than those whose progress along this scale has been slower.

This approach has the unfortunate virtue of contextualizing culture as nothing more than a set of developmental stages, arranged to the comparative advantage of Europeans.

Diffusionist School

Diffusion: Diffusion is a concept that refers to the spread of a cultural trait from one geographical area to another through such processes as migration, colonization, trade, etc. Diffusion has been used to create two different diffusionist schools, the British and German. The British school, led by G. E. Smith, held that all aspects of culture and civilization were invented once and diffused outwards to spread throughout the world. The German school, led by Graebner, used the principles of culture areas and culture circles to account for independent invention. This theory argued that different aspects of culture and civilization were invented in several different areas and diffused outwards in radiating circles, culture circles.

Independent Invention: The principle of independent invention was developed to account for the fact that similar aspects of civilization developed by different peoples in different areas at different times. This was a major weakness of the British school and one that would eventually be overturned. The concept of psychic unity of mankind was devised to explain independent invention.

Culture Area: The culture area concept was first developed by Adolf Bastian but developed by later scholars from a number of different theoretical schools and as a tool for cross-culture analysis as a means of determining the spread of culture traits. The term is used to characterize any region of relative cultural and environmental uniformity, a region containing a common pattern of culture traits (Winthrop 1991:61).

The German diffusionists used culture areas to identify where particular cultural elements (via independent invention) developed. The spread of a particular cultural element occurs in concentric circles from the point of origin. By identifying culture circles and tracing their spread, the German diffusionists argued one could reconstruct the entire history of world cultural development (Barfield 1997:103).

Culture Circle: Culture Circle is a term created by the German diffusionists to serve as a methodological tool for tracing the spread of cultural elements from a culture area in an attempt to reconstruct the history of culture development.

Psychic Unity of Mankind: The concept of psychic unity is used to refer to a common set of modes of thinking and characteristics that transcend individuals or cultures. Evolutionists depended heavily upon the concept. It was in fact the foundation of their comparative method because it made it possible to determine a society’s particular state of development relative to the rest of the world.

The British diffusionists used the concept to confirm their belief that civilization developed once in ancient Egypt and then spread through migration and colonization. That all humans share this common set of characteristics and modes of thinking is evidence for a single origin of civilization and human culture. 

The German diffusionists used the term to refer to sets of folk ideals and elementary ideals. For example, the elementary ideal of deity is represented as a set of different folk ideals in individual cultures such as the Christian God, Allah, Buddha, Ra, Odin etc. (Winthrop 1991:222-3).

Historical Particularist Approach
Culture: There is no adequate definition of culture and more than likely never will be. To "define" this term I have listed below interpretations from various individuals most often associated with the historicist approach. 

Boas: Franz Boas viewed culture as a set of customs, social institutions and beliefs that characterize any particular society. He argued that cultural differences were not due to race, but rather to differing environmental conditions and other ‘accidents of history’ (Goodenough 1996:292). Further, cultures had to be viewed as fusion’s of differing culture traits which develop in different space and time (Durrenberger 1996:417)

Kroeber: Kroeber’s view of culture is best described by the term superorganic, that is, culture is sui generis and as such can only be explained in terms of itself. Culture is an entity that exists separate from the psychology and biology of the individual and obeys its own set of laws (Winthrop 1991:280-281).

Benedict: Ruth Benedict defined culture as basic ways of living and defined a particular culture in terms of a unique culture configuration or psychological type. The collective psychologies of a certain people make up their particular culture configuration, which is determined by the collective relationship, and nature of a culture’s parts (Goodenough 1996:139).
Lowie: Lowie’s view of culture is very much like that of Boas. He considered culture to be disparate histories, Boas’ the product of combination of geographical conditions, resources and accidents of history (Bernard and Spencer 1996:139). 

Sapir: Sapir placed more emphasis on the individual that either Boas of Kroeber. He argued that culture is not contained within a society itself. Culture consists of the many interactions between the individuals of the society (Barnard and Spencer 1996:139).

Radin: Radin differed from both Boas and Kroeber, particularly the later, in his approach and conceptualization of Culture. He stressed the importance of the individual as an agent of cultural change. In contrast to Kroeber who claimed culture was an entity of its own and shaped the individual, Radin argued that the individual molds culture through innovation of new techniques and beliefs Sacharoff-Fast Wolf 1991:565).

Wissler: Wissler defined culture in his writings as a learned behavior or a complex of ideas (Freed and Freed 1991:763). He argued that individual elements of culture are expressed as many culture traits that may be grouped into culture complexes. The whole of culture complexes was the expression of culture (Barnard and Spencer 1996:139).

Superorganic: This is a term coined by Herbert Spencer in 1867 and utilized by Kroeber to help explain his view of culture and culture change. He saw culture as an entity of itself and separate from the individual. He explained that culture, indeed ends where the individual ends. To accurately understand culture, a separate body of theory and methodology specific to culture must be utilized (Winthrop 1991:280). 

Cultural Relativism: This tenant holds that the beliefs, customs, practices and rituals of an individual culture must be observed and evaluated from the perspective in which they originate and are manifested. This is the only way to truly understand the meaning of observations and place them in historical context (Barfield 1997:98).

Culture and Personality: This concept is associated with Ruth Benedict. The basic tenants of it are explained in Patterns of Culture (1934). The argument holds that culture is like an individual in that it is a more-or-less consistent pattern of thoughts and behavior. These consistent patterns take on the emotional and intellectual characteristics of the individuals within the society. These characteristics may be studied to gain insight into the people under investigation. This has been criticized as being psychological reductionism (Seymore-Smith 1986:66).

Culture Configuration: This is a concept developed by Ruth Benedict to assist in explaining the nature of culture. A culture configuration is the expression of the personality of a particular society. A culture configuration is the sum of all the individual personalities of the society, a sort of societal psychological average. Differences in cultural configurations are not representative of a higher or lower capacity for cultural development but are instead simply alternative means of organizing society and experience (Caffrey 1991:44). 

Historical particularism is an approach to understanding the nature of culture and cultural changes of particular people. It is not a particular methodology. Boas argued that the history of a particular culture lay in the study of the individual traits of a particular culture in a limited geographical region. After many different cultures have been studied in the same way within a region, the history of individual cultures may be reconstructed. By having detailed data from many different cultures as a common frame of reference, individual culture traits may be singled out as being borrowed or invented. This is a crucial element of reconstructing the history of a particular culture. (Bock 1996:299). 

To this end, Boas and his students stressed the importance of gathering as much data as possible about individual cultures before any assumptions or interpretations are made regarding a culture or culture change within a culture. He and his students took great pains to record any and all manner of information. This included the recording of oral history and tradition (salvage ethnology) and basic ethnographic methods such as participant observation. Boas also stressed the importance of all sub-fields of anthropology in reconstructing history. Ethnographic evidence must be used with linguistic evidence, archaeological remains and physical and biological evidence. This approach became known as the four field method of anthropology and was spread to anthropology departments all over the country by Boas’ students and their students. 

Some Methodological Statements:

Franz Boas:

"If we want to make progress on the desired line, we must insist upon critical methods, based not on generalities but on each individual case. In many cases the final decision will be on dependent origin in others in favor of dissemination" (Boas, as quoted by Harris 260). "Boas was aggressively atheoretical, rejecting as unsubstantiated assumptions the grand reconstructions of both evolutionists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, and diffusionists, such as G. E. Smith and Fritz Graebner" (Winthrop 83-84). Marvin Harris records Boas' "mission" as seeking "to rid anthropology of its amateurs and armchair specialists by making ethnographic research in the field the central experience and minimum attribute of professional status" (Harris 250)

Paul Radin:

An ethnography, he held, should only have "as much of the past and as much of the contacts with other cultures as is necessary for the elucidation of the particular period. No more" (Radin, as quoted by Hays 292).

Clark Wissler:

"The future status of anthropology depends upon the establishment of a chronology for man and his culture based upon objective verifiable data" (Wissler, as quoted by Hays 290).


Many of Boas’ conclusions, as well as those of his most noted students, have fallen out of favor as more anthropological work has been carried out. However, Boas and his students are responsible for taking anthropology away from grand theories of evolution and diffusion and refocusing its attention on the many different cultures and varieties of cultural expression. Also, the interplay of countless factors that influence culture and culture change received more attention as a result of Boas and his students.

The emphasis on the importance of the collection of data has paid dividends for modern scholars. The vast amount of information generated by their investigations has provided raw information for countless subsequent studies and investigations, much of which would have been lost to time had ‘oral cultures’ not been recorded


Most of the criticism of historical particularism has arisen over the issue of data collection and fear of making broad theories. Boas’ insistence on the tireless collection of data fell under attack by some of his own students, Wissler in particular. Some saw the vast amounts being collected as a body of knowledge that would never be sifted through by the investigator. Furthermore, if the investigator was reluctant to generate broad theories on cultural development and culture change, what was the point of gathering so much and such detailed work? 

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